[Matthew 5:17-20] “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law and the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them”… “For, I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of Heaven.”
Jesus Fulfills God’s Law in and for You
The human being is capable of living an outwardly decent and good life. Men and women don’t always do it. But human nature is capable of not killing, not shoplifting, not cheating on your taxes, being faithful to a spouse, not engaging in crass, outward sin with the body, to not be a drunkard or a junky, of being a good family man, to succeed, to be a good provider, a good citizen.
We may have some big failures in these areas. But the point is that human nature, by its own power, can do these outward things. Even unbelievers, atheists, people of false religions - even people who secretly hate God and hate the gospel - or people who neglect hearing God’s Word - can live an outwardly decent life, so that everyone says, “He was a good man.”
We call this form of righteousness “civil righteousness”. Even the scribes and the Pharisees lived this kind of life. They were “good men” by all accounts, and worshiped God, but hated the true Christ.
This civil righteousness, that all men can attain, has benefit in this world, but it is not the righteousness of heaven’s kingdom. It is not the righteousness that God counts as righteousness. It can be done without faith in God, without true love for God in the heart or for the neighbor. It can be done for an idol, or for any god, or for me and myself. It has use, but it’s not the righteousness of God.
“Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.” The righteousness of God - the righteousness that counts before God - is a righteousness that reaches all the way down in the heart.
The righteousness that counts before God doesn’t say, “I haven’t killed”, but it asks, “am I at peace with my neighbor”, “do I love my neighbor in my heart”, “do I have compassion and good hopes for my enemy and the one who hates me”? “But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment…” [Matthew 5:22]
To be truly righteous isn’t only to refrain from adultery or fornication. To be truly righteous is to be absent of sinful lusts. To have eyes absent of the desire to look. To be pure in heart and to have a pure mind. To be pure in passions.
God created everything about you - not just your hands and feet - but the seat of your emotions, passions and thought and desire, the mind and thinking and feeling - God created these and His Law speaks to these. To be righteous is to be absent of sin even in these.
Some teach that simply to have impure desire or disordered impulses or orientation isn’t sin. But Jesus said, “From within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.” [Mark 7:21-23]
To have a righteousness that fulfills God’s Law - that exceeds that of scribes and Pharisees - that is righteous to God - is to be without sin as far down even as the heart. Who has had this exceeding righteousness? Certainly not me. And not you. But there is a way to be truly righteous, even for sinners. And there is then a way even to be healed and to get better.
Jesus fulfilled God’s Law, God’s righteousness. He loved God with all His heart. He loved His neighbor as his own self. He believed God perfectly and trusted in God. He was pure in heart and body. When the devil tempted Him, He was not at all attracted to sin.
Jesus kept God’s Law and perfect righteousness, not for Himself, but as one who was offering His unblemished life as a sacrifice for you. His fulfilling of the Law was for you.
In Jesus was also fulfilled all the just requirements of the Law against sin. Eternal death was owed. “The soul that sins shall die.” “In Adam all die.” [Ezekiel 18:4; 1 Corinthians 15:22] Jesus, the only sinless one, fulfilled this payment for sin in His flesh.
This is for you. Like a marriage, what is His - his perfect life and righteousness - is now in your account, and what is yours - sin and unrighteousness - has fallen to His account. His is yours and yours is His.
You now stand before God with the wealth, the righteousness of your Husband, your Christ, your Savior. Husband of the Church and Savior of each man and woman. He, a person, God’s Son is your righteousness which exceeds your own and that of scribes and Pharisees.
Now that my righteousness is found in another, should I then continue in sin? “Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound” [Romans 6]. No, instead, faith asks, “Since my righteousness is found in another, will He also help me do better?” “He has pardoned, will He also heal?” “He has washed my guilt, will He also purify my still sinful soul and body?” Yes, He will. He is an exceedingly great Savior. After saving, He also stays and helps.
This is why, without burden, we can say these words of Scripture: “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” [Ephesians 2:8-10].
Not only are you saved without works, by grace through faith, but you are also now made the workmanship of His hands - workmanship by which He takes a sinner and even appoints for them the works of God, true good works.
Or, to use the language of today’s Gospel, He has fulfilled the Law for the sinner, and now He is fulfilling the Law even in the sinner. “For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God” [1 Peter 3:18]. But also, “in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us” [Romans 8:4]
His fulfillment of the Law on your behalf is once and done, once and for all [Hebrews 10:10]. His fulfillment of the Law within you is hour after hour. Daily putting away from the heart what is sin and sprouting up anew, and growing strong, what is His.
Can I do better? Can we do better? Yes. He is fulfilling His true righteousness within you. He is willing to do so daily.
By Christ, we learn to repent right away in the heart. You daily have a task and a service to do within yourself. To pay attention, each minute, always, to what in your passions is sin and what is good - to what in your heart is sin and what is from Him. All from me will be sin. All that is from His Word and Commandments is good and from Him.
We pay close attention to ourselves, our hearts, our thoughts, our words, our actions, our motives and reasoning - and we live a life of continual repentance. And this is not a burden, but freedom - because it’s the healing and helping work of His workmanship in us - to make us, by His hands, for good works.
Individually, let us do the works of God. Because of Jesus, even sinners can do so. As a congregation, let’s recognize how little we’ve really been doing for our neighbor, for those in need, for those who need Christ, and let’s repent together and be the workmanship of God together that we are by our baptism. Let’s begin to pray and discuss what works of God we could be doing.
And let’s know we are sinners and hold fast to Christ who alone is our righteousness. We have none of our own. He alone has fulfilled God’s Law for us. He alone can fulfill God’s Law within us. He really does it. May He do so more and more. Amen.